Saturday, 31 October 2015

Messy Lives

This week I visited Hardwick Hall, a 16th century stately home that was built to impress and has a fascinating history. It was commissioned by Bess of Hardwick who worked her way up from relative poverty - via four marriages - to become the second wealthiest woman in the kingdom. She specified an unusual layout: there is no grand entrance hall at ground level and the lavish state rooms are situated on the upper floors. Although it was occupied by her descendants until 1959, the building escaped re-modelling because it was used as a mere secondary home. The last, solitary occupant made herself cosy in just a few of the smaller rooms, which she equipped with modern appliances and furniture. The rest she left alone. She had done what many of us do - she had adapted the space to the way she actually lived.
Hardwick Hall
Bess’ other house, Chatsworth, which was preferred by her descendants, is in a later but no less magnificent style. In talking about it with a friend we agreed that, although the architecture and setting of the house are exquisite, the interiors - lavish and opulent though they are - do not impress in the same way: they are messy. The rooms are decorated in a variety of fashions and contain a seemingly infinite and disparate collection of furniture, ornaments and knick-knacks. Consequently they do not cohere stylistically. While the vision for the building and its setting was clearly realised according to strict professional disciplines, the interior reflects the fact that daily lives are not lived according to immutable patterns. Only a vigilant and fastidious stylist is able to resist the gradual accumulation of mismatched items and it takes a rigid disciplinarian to throw out granny’s sideboard because it doesn't meet the current design aesthetic.
Is it possible to design interiors that suit the way people live? I read that, in California, a billionaire is having a house built to his specifications, one of which is a dressing room for his wife which incorporates a raised catwalk so that she can try on her outfits in front of an invited audience. Extravagant, but I suppose it could double up as a nifty skateboard track for their kids. Most of us, however, don’t have bespoke residences built for us; we make do with what has been built speculatively, in which case the organisation of the interiors involves a little compromise. And stylistic integrity, if it is considered at all, takes second place.

In mid 1940s America there was a serious attempt to re-think the way that houses for the masses were designed and built, and husband and wife designers Charles and Ray Eames took up the challenge enthusiastically. Their idea was to make a flexible living space that could meet the requirements of the ways in which people wanted - or were obliged - to live. They were driven by philosophical ideals that valued knowledge, discovery, technology and science for the common good, and saw no separation between life and work. It was a bold idea, but it didn't catch on; not everyone is a talented designer who can work from a home studio and, maybe, people prefer to separate their home life from their work - or perhaps they have no choice but to do so. In any case America subsequently filled up with “tract” houses built to patterns which allowed for none of the individuality which the Eames’ envisaged.
The Eames’ were very successful in other fields, however, especially furniture. Some of their pioneering chair designs are still being manufactured and can be found all around the world. I even spotted some in the cafeteria at Hardwick Hall. 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Sustainable Economy: A Minority Interest?

The news last week that some residents of a North London suburb are urging neighbours to refrain from using noisy gardening machinery prompted this thought: garden maintenance in such suburbs, as I have observed myself, is often contracted to professionals who, being paid by the hour, depend on mechanisation for their profit; residents pressing for a return to hand-operated equipment are on a hiding to nothing.

There is a tragi-comic ring to the story:  affluent householders finding something to complain about have been the staple of many a TV sitcom; but beneath the laughter lies a contradiction between the desire for economic growth and the attenuation of sound-pollution, a conflict between our interests as consumers and as producers. It’s a small story, writ large elsewhere.

The President of China was welcomed to the UK this week with all the ceremony and puffed-up pomp that the Government could muster. The ostentatious and highly visible cost of this colourful junket sits uneasily with the Government’s determination to reduce the welfare bill, thereby making some of the poorest in our society even poorer. But I suppose the Government needs someone to pay for the fancy-dress uniforms of the Household Cavalry. And its spectacular welcome is a thank-you to Xi Jinping for his promised investment - the Government needs China's money to supplement the few billions it can wring from its poorest citizens. What for? To finance public infrastructure such as energy generation, water supply and mass-transportation which, thanks to earlier privatisations, no longer serve the population at large so much as those who own the shares. The Government’s solution is that our nuclear power stations will be built, owned and operated by a foreign state which has generated its wealth by growing its economy regardless of collateral damage to the environment and its inhabitants – just as Britain did in the 19th Century. (And, by the way, guess where the profits will go.)

Of course any respectable regime would these days claim to be doing its best to protect the environment, despite the fact that eco-policies are most likely to be at odds with the platform on which political popularity depends – the promise of economic growth. Is it possible to balance the two? What about sustainable economic growth? Well, the obstacle to balance is greed. We all want to live a “comfortable” life, free of hunger and privation but, because there is no universally accepted definition of “comfortable”, the definition of sustainability tends to be stretched to suit.

Ever since we took up farming we have messed with nature and even some of our well-intended interventions in the environment have been misguided – as a study of Yellowstone National Park illustrates. When it was first designated, in 1872, tourists flocked there armed with rifles and almost completely eliminated the wildlife. Left only with scenery, it was, for a while, still considered by most to be the epitome of a wild and natural landscape. Eventually it was recognised that animals ought to be there and so a form of zoo was established to exhibit cuddly mammals. It took until 1995, however, to re-introduce the wolves that had originally been a key species in balancing the ecosystem. Now there is talk of another missing species, homo-sapiens - the aboriginal population evicted by the Europeans. By all accounts the aboriginal tribes lived a sustainable way of life, in harmony with their environment, but who nowadays would be “comfortable” with such an existence? Twenty nine years after humans left the Chernobyl exclusion zone it has been recorded that flora and fauna populations have recovered and now surpass levels prior to the disaster. The evidence suggests that if humans were to return they would prove more deadly to wildlife than radio-active contamination.

Far more money, apparently, is spent on medical research in the effort to prolong human life than is spent on the prevention of ecological degradation. In sport, this would be recognised as an “own goal”.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Two Meanings of Destination

I had an encounter, many years ago, with a fellow student, one whose style - scruffy clothes, unkempt beard, smelly sandals - signalled a determination to eschew the prevailing fashions and, as it turned out, the niceties of social etiquette that go with them. One of his theories - one which seemed profound to me at the time - was that travel for its own sake is pointless: journeys of the mind are the only ones that really matter. This argument is, of course, demonstrably flawed in its assertion that there is no mind-expanding benefit to be had from travel.

I haven't travelled anywhere for the past two weeks - not that I'm complaining: I have been to the theatre and cinema to experience journeys of the vicarious and mental varieties and the upside has been enjoying the company of friends and comparing notes with them over a drink or two before retiring to the comfort of home. And we have 'travelled' to a variety of places in the process.

Justin Kurzel's film Macbeth was shot in the Isle of Skye, the beach at Bamburgh Castle and Ely Cathedral - all of which locations seemed perfectly to enhance the visceral mood of the production - and are all places I have been to. It was hard to resist the temptation to whisper, "Ooh, look. It's..." but the dialogue was rather mumbled at times so it was important to concentrate. And the story, familiar as it is, doesn't so much challenge the intellect as illuminate the evils of unfettered greed and ambition.

Ridley Scott's The Martian was also shot in a place I've been to - not Mars, obviously, but Wadi Rum in Jordan. I've read that the science on which the story relies is, to a large extent, feasible. If true, the film is more sci than fi, and I was left questioning only whether I possess the same degrees of ingenuity, gumption and will to survive as Matt Damon.

The setting of Denis Villeneuve's film Sicario is a place I haven't been to and don't have any inclination to visit: a desolate stretch of the US-Mexican border - a desert peppered with ugly settlements overwhelmed by the violence perpetrated by drug dealers. The movie is action-orientated but it does raise the important - and seemingly unanswerable - question of how to end the drug-fuelled cycle of corruption and violence. Incidentally, it also raises the question of why Emily Blunt was cast in what seemed to me a stereotyped character marginal to the plot. The answer is easily deduced: ticket sales.

I didn't go far with Sarah Gavron's film Suffragette: its setting is London's East End - albeit dressed in 1900s grime. And the story, being historical, answers more questions than it asks: it's a film that might help a class of schoolchildren grasp the importance of the enfranchisement of women to the development of social mobility and equality. It might even persuade them of the need to pay attention to politics.

But there were no classes of schoolchildren in the cinema, unlike in the theatre where I saw Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a play which, like Hamlet, is on school curricula. The setting is as well-known as the play itself - although no one has ever been there except in their mind's eye. It's a desolate place, nondescript yet universally recognisable. The meaning of the play has been interpreted in political, philosophical, ethical, Christian, Freudian, Jungian - even homoerotic terms: as far as mental travelling is concerned you may take your pick of destinations, although one reluctant 'traveller' simply wrote in the comments book "Not my cup of tea".

But the main protagonists - scruffy clothes, unkempt beards, smelly footwear, going nowhere - somehow took me back to a place and a time.

Waiting for Godot is touring the UK and Ireland until 28th November.

Saturday, 10 October 2015


Getting away from it all is a phrase we use to mean "taking respite from the tedium of daily life", and the phrase a change is as good as a rest describes the supposed benefit of doing so. Holidays: how much better it would be if they only meant a change of enjoyment instead of respite.

Those who are in regular paid employment will recognise this scenario: doing the company's bidding in exchange for periods of paid leave: it's a fair-enough deal as long as they don't mind spending the greater part of their time doing the company's bidding. Those who are not in regular employment or who are effectively unemployed - like me - may do as we please (means permitting). But but this puts us at risk of doing nothing in particular and, since I am keen to do something with what's left of my time on Earth I like to think of getting away not as escape but as opportunity; to refresh my outlook and check my assumptions.

To this end I look for what it is about other places that makes their peoples' lives different from our own. (How and why do Spaniards eat dinner so late yet still manage to sleep and get up for work in the morning?) During my recent trip to Canada I observed that the way of life is similar to that in the UK, even to the extent that the ongoing national election campaign mirrored the party politics and issues of those at home so faithfully that I could have joined in the debates. Nevertheless the undercurrent of North American culture did tug at my feet and dislodge the tendency to "feel at home". Complacency thus banished, I reflected on how best to resume life back in the UK and I made a resolution to be more focused on those things that are important to me. But resolutions are easily made: application is the thing. "A routine is what you need," said my partner.

A routine sounds boring - and so it may be - but there is a theoretical advantage to having one: a small but regular allocation of time dedicated to sorting out life's essentials can free up enormous amounts of time to spend on other things - such as making oneself and others happy. A priority list is essential, of course: no use using the allocation up on insignificant stuff - you might unexpectedly run out of day before you get around to what really counts. So here was my plan: spend each morning writing. It's the thing I really want to do but don't because I procrastinate.

My new routine worked well: a few hours at the keyboard, in my pyjamas, set me in a good mood: the 'achievement' freed my conscience of the guilt that accompanies procrastination. That first afternoon, feeling pleased with myself - and it being warm and sunny - I walked over to the Northern Quarter, stomping ground of youthful hipsters - to whom I am thankful for the widespread availability of craft ale and authentic coffee - where I spotted two splendid new cafes. I resolved to come back one morning for coffee - before remembering that that my mornings are no longer free for dalliance. The following morning a social obligation necessitated showering, shaving and dressing; the morning after that a software problem distracted my attention for an unnecessarily long time - and so on. By Saturday morning, my resolve had weakened and I was easily persuaded by my partner to go for coffee at one of those newly-discovered places. Unfortunately, they were closed: young hipsters, it seems, have no reason to get up before noon at weekends. So we compromised and went to a predictably reliable chain cafe. It was there I made the case for a two-week sojourn in Athens.

Saturday, 3 October 2015


Having just spent three weeks touring Canada - well, a small part of British Columbia and an even tinier part of Alberta, actually - I am more convinced than ever of the value of preserving cultural diversity. While grateful that the lingua franca, English, was convenient for me, I note that it came at the cost of the annihilation of most of the aboriginal peoples and their 230 languages, to be replaced by the ecological disaster that is global capitalism. Having said that, there are things to enjoy that are uniquely Canadian and the Government does allocate some resources to the preservation and restoration of the environment and to the remnants of the cultures of the First Nations.

As a young man I was once on the verge of emigrating to Canada, tempted by a promotional film which featured all its natural beauty in “glorious” Technicolor and a commentary which emphasised opportunities to prosper on the back of abundant resources - timber, fish, minerals etc. In the end I didn’t follow in the wake of pioneering Brits such as those who left clues to their origins in place names like Didsbury, Tweedsmuir and the Birkenhead River, or those who, more sensitively, stuck with the exotic-sounding native names like Squamish, or those who imaginatively named Muleshoe and the Kicking Horse River. Instead I turned up years later, as a tourist, to see what became of the country I might have helped to shape.

After a few days in the impressive city of Vancouver (which, apparently, is regarded as Hicksville by residents of Toronto) we picked up a campervan and headed towards the coast, the mountains and the valleys - a tall order in a continent which has more of these features than you might possibly imagine. We soon found that in the land of monster trailers and RVs our modest, European-style campervan was something of a curiosity: one Park Ranger was incredulous and asked what it was like to drive a vehicle that didn’t have a 5.5 litre engine. My answer was diplomatically calibrated so as not to give offence by making us sound like invading eco-warriors. Small it may have been, but the van was loaded with so much electrical gadgetry that it would have been impossible to ‘camp’ in it without a 30 amp hook-up: even the bed could not be made up without pressing a button. No problem: the region is awash with fully-serviced RV campgrounds and it’s easy to see why. The great outdoors beckons big-time in this part of the world: it’s vast and beautiful. The tourist industry is geared to it, each centre vying to out-outdoor the next. Whistler, famed for staging the 2010 winter Olympics without snow, is a sophisticated resort, but drive further north and you come to Pemberton - strapline, “the real outdoors”  - and, further still, you reach Lilooet  which is "guaranteed rugged!”

But nature on such a scale is not without danger: on the coast near Tofino we noted the road-signs for the tsunami escape route; in the mountains there were warnings of bears, cougars and moose; in the forests there were graphics indicating levels of fire-risk; and on the roads there were regulations concerning snow-chains, winter tires and mandatory seasonal route closures. We experienced only fine weather, fortunately. And, although we saw a bear ambling along a railway track, a whale to starboard of our ferry, a coyote slinking through the bushes, a marmot and a great many tiny black squirrels, none of them appeared threatening. Nor did we encounter any dangerous Canadians: those we interacted with were invariably polite and always urged us to “have a great day” - even the lady ‘flaggers’ at the numerous road-works gave instructions smilingly - particularly the one who was smoking a joint.

Canada is too big to explore in three weeks but just think: if King George III had played his hand more adroitly, it might have been even bigger.